In case you missed it, recently a Texas teen and his lawyer came up with the newest creative defense to criminal behavior. “Affluenza” is apparently an affliction that affects the very rich. It seems their hearts are two sizes too small. Tell me something I didn’t already know. The affuenza defense was successful in a recent court case in Fort Worth. It follows a long tradition of what we might charitably call creative defenses for criminal behavior. The less charitable among us would label it a “BS defense” but that would be getting way ahead of ourselves.
In my first political science class, we read the collective works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both talked about the state of nature and how human beings agreed to a common government in the interest of having a common judge over our disputes and criminal activities. See, the state of nature called for some generic common sense rules, but there was no intricate legal system until government was founded. Beginning with the Magna Carta, the accused began to acquire rights of their own until we got to the situation we’ve gotten to today.
If our homes are Ground Zero of the so-called battle on responsibility, then I work at Ground One. Having taught for fifteen years, I have seen us lose our grip on the responsibility battle slowly but surely. Older generations are fond of saying that the younger generations don’t have any morals. This is patently untrue. For one, most people follow the rules regardless of the situation whether they be 80 or 10. More importantly though, these kind of thoughts suppose that people don’t understand right from wrong. I think this misses the point and clearly misses the point of the affluenza situation we saw earlier.
It has been a slow descent. A quick call for affluenza would have been too obvious. Similarly, the low blood sugar defense or celebratory gunfire (my personal favorite) would have also been howled out of the courtroom had lawyers opened with that defense. No, it began innocently enough with the insanity defense. After all, most rational people can certainly entertain that as a viable defense in some circumstances. However, this defense ignored the notion from Locke and Hobbes above. Whether we personally administer justice or the state does, something has to happen when capital crimes are committed. Whether someone goes to a mental health facility or a prison, they must go somewhere. They can’t go back home as if nothing happened.
This brings us to the crux of the problem. Someone has to be responsible. This generation knows right and wrong just as well as any generation. So, the calls of “these darn kids don’t know right and wrong” is off the mark. The problem isn’t a knowledge of right from wrong, the problem is the motivation to do the right thing. After all, if I can get off by simply claiming that I am too rich to care then why should I do the right thing. This gets me back to Ground Zero and Ground One of our societal battle for responsible behavior.
Again, the excuses began innocently enough. Some students come from troubled homes and therefore have legitimate emotional disturbance. Others have legitimate conditions that make it difficult for them to behave like a normal child would. Those were supposed to be the exceptions to the rule, but now everyone seems to have some kind of condition that precludes them from acceptable behavior. Even still, those in the first group would still ultimately be responsible for their behavior. We would just accommodate them as best we could.
Everyone has a story about the star athlete that got away with murder (sometimes quite literally). These are becoming more and more plentiful. I could remember a time when athletes were the best kids in the school. In my current situation, they are the worst kids in the school. I can understand the coaches’ perspective. Sometimes the ability to play a sport is the one incentive keeping those kids in the school game. Yet, when we start excusing behavior because they are athletes we are moving down a slippery slope. We begin excusing behavior for any number of reasons and the student begins to think they can get away with doing just about anything. Who could blame them?
In terms of the affluenza, we have to get to the point where we can differentiate between a reason for bad behavior and an excuse for bad behavior. If affluenza really exists it can explain why something bad happens, but it cannot excuse it. The guilty must pay just the same, but maybe the “afflicted soul” could be rehabilitated. Heck, maybe they could be helped from some of their affluenza to help the victims families. That seems fairest to me. Maybe if junior is not to blame for being a stupid little rich bastard then maybe the parents that made him that way can go to jail in his stead. Someone has to be responsible you know.